An innovative teacher turns kids into writers

Nancy Barile's flair for teaching has captured her students' attention - and just earned her an award from the College Board.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Most of the hallways in Revere High School are lined with skinny, sherbet-orange lockers. But outside Nancy Barile's classroom, her sophomore lit students have placed a stately row of poster-board gravestones, complete with epitaphs, for the characters who died in "Hamlet."

Ms. Barile knows how to hook the CSI generation. But it's her flair for teaching them to write that earned her a recent award from the College Board.

On this particular morning, the teens in her "Mysteries" elective class focus intensely as they draft their own suspense stories. Barile has already led them through the criteria she'll be looking for, and the priority today is imagery - part of "Standard 15" measured on statewide tests.

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"What's imagery? Language that appeals to your senses," Barile says as she writes on the whiteboard. "What does it smell like out in the woods? Is there a smell of decay?" she suggests with a mischievous grin.

"Out of all my classes, this is the most exciting - she captures your attention while she's teaching," says senior Phillip Longo, who first encountered her in an after-school class for students who had failed English.

Loved as she is for handing out creative assignments, never "busywork," her students also give Barile credit for insisting they put their commas in the right place.

"She helps everyone with their writing so much," says Autumn Zandt, a senior in Barile's advanced-placement course. "It's been really nice to have someone focusing on [grammar] before we go away to college."

Teaching in Revere, Mass., for 11 years, Barile has built up a reputation - as a feminist with a voice that more than fills a room; as a stalwart supporter of the school's sports teams, plays, and community-service activities; and as a mentor to students and fellow teachers. It all feeds into her ability to turn kids into writers, which garnered her one of this year's six Bob Costas Grants for the Teaching of Writing from the College Board, a national nonprofit association in New York.

"When students are able to improve upon their writing skills, it builds a kind of confidence that translates into other academic areas," says Sandra Riley, a College Board spokeswoman. With colleges and employers complaining that high school grads too often require remedial writing lessons, the $2,000 awards are designed to highlight effective practices and support teachers' extracurricular projects.

Barile applied for the grant to restart Revere High's literary magazine, Crossroads. For the past three years, it's been the victim of budget cuts, leaving no outlet for the poems, short stories, and foreign-language pieces that Barile used to publish every year.

Her friend, history teacher Bill O'Brien, says the literary magazine attracts "kids you wouldn't expect.... A lot of them use writing as an outlet, and she can kind of channel that."

Revere, just north of Boston, is a gateway for immigrants and a place where many families have long relied on blue-collar jobs. Aiming for college isn't something all of the school's 1,400 students do automatically. But Barile tries to encourage anything that might give them a feeling of success in school. Rather than set the literary magazine up as a competition, "as long as it's not inappropriate, I publish everything," she says.

Brittany Deptula, a senior in Barile's Advanced Placement (AP) class, says she's excited about contributing lyrical poetry to the magazine. She also started writing for the local newspaper after Barile suggested it, and now hopes to study journalism. "She's just one of those teachers that you can have, like, kind of a more personal relationship with," Brittany says.

Melyssia Mansur, a sophomore, says she's writing her own biography because of Barile's encouragement. And Brian Dudley, a senior in her AP class, says he was astounded to find himself sitting around at lunch with classmates discussing "The Awakening," by Kate Chopin, a novel about a young woman that was published in 1899 and repopularized in the 1970s.

"I was like, 'I've never done this before!' But she made us want to talk about the book and seriously think about it.... It made us all feel kind of like, 'Oh wow, we're actually learning something,'" Brian says.

Barile had always wanted to be a teacher, but she became a paralegal instead, partly to please her father, she says. When she went to night school to change careers, her student-teaching brought her to Revere. A year later, after working with high school dropouts, a position opened up and she grabbed it.

"I'm always thinking about, 'How can I make this more interesting for the kids?' " she says. Then she channels that interest into skills: demanding they include literary evidence, such as direct quotes, to back up their essays, for instance.

Mr. O'Brien says the students respect Barile because they know she holds them to high standards. She fills their papers with comments and has them redo their work if it's not good enough.

"This is a community where some people will have lower expectations," he says, but Barile tries to connect with everyone, whether it's a pregnant teen or a gang member. "A lot of kids rise to that when they see, 'Oh, she's not going to let me put my head down in class.... She knows I'm better than this.' "

"I'm still trying to save the world," Barile says with a tired smile and the acknowledgment that it sometimes wears her down.

That's partly why she calls her recent award "a career highlight" and "the gift that keeps on giving." At the ceremony, she was amazed to see 1,000 people give her a standing ovation. She even gets congratulated in the grocery store.

But for now, it's just another day to cruise around the classroom, keeping her kids writing as she nudges and praises them.

"Excellent. You've got great stuff there," she says after reading over a boy's shoulder. "Keep your verb tense the same," she calls out to the class. And then, pausing over another story in progress, she exclaims with genuine delight: "Slurped! Slurped is a great onomatopoeia!"

From near-dropout to college-bound

For Merzudin Ibric, grades 1 to 3 were a casualty of war in Bosnia. Grades 11 and 12 would have gone up in smoke, too, if not for the intervention of English teacher Nancy Barile.

An immigrant to the United States at age 12, Merzudin's English was fluent by the time he reached Ms. Barile's class as a sophomore at Revere High School. All too often, he had his head down on his desk, but even then he'd manage to toss out some sophisticated comments that gave his teacher glimmers of hope.

"Finally, I pulled him aside, and I was like, 'Look. What is your deal?' " Barile says. He confided that he planned to drop out and get a job as soon as he turned 16.

"She told me that she would not let me drop out ... because she thought I was smart, and she wanted me to graduate, and she told me that I was going to go to college," he says in a phone interview.

Barile knew he was a fast runner, so she paired up with the track coach to persuade Merzudin to pull his grades up in the three classes he was failing so he could compete. He went on to become a state and regional champion.

Currently on scholarship for a postgraduate year at Phillips Academy in nearby Andover, he'll attend Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., next fall. "I'm glad that I listened," Merzudin says.

Barile also urged him to write a book about his experiences as a child in Bosnia and his transition here. He listened to that, too. Now his teachers at Andover are helping him try to get it published.

"She's just an amazing person, and I'm ever thankful to her for helping me out," he says of the woman who befriended his whole family. "If I need advice on something, she's always there; she does not hesitate at all."

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